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A Murder of Crows

by Alex Hernandez


"I can’t see anything through all this red shit!" Tactical Officer Anton Hershkovitz said staring out the window, then back at a false-color mock up of the landscape. The meteorological vulgarism broke the long silence of their flight.

"Good thing you’re not the pilot." First Pilot Ameera el-Ayeb's words were a few degrees lower than the thin, frigid air outside their S-8 glider. She forced her eyes on the instrumentation and not out the grimy windows as she maneuvered the craft through the Martian stratosphere. Hersh knew that, above all, she avoided looking at him.

They were shoved in next to each other, shoulders chafing, but the distance between them felt great. He had intended to cut her loose weeks ago. His deployment was ending and he didn't need any messy, emotional performances. Then they were thrown together on this reconnaissance mission to find the last garrison of the avian humans left on Mars. To make things worse, this immense haboob had mysteriously blown over the Tharsis region. Now he was the one in a huff.

"Look, Hersh, if you want to end whatever it is we have, all you have to do is say so. We're both adults," she tossed out the remark like a grenade.

"This isn’t right. There shouldn’t be a dust storm of this magnitude at this time of year," he said ignoring her statement. His job was easy compared to Ameera’s. He basically had to scan everything within the area of operations and squirt it back to their battleship, The Harpy Hunter, in orbit, and if there was trouble, he manned the guns while she got them the hell out, which gave him too much free time to obsess over whatever it is they have.

"Fine," she sighed. "Captain Morales agrees with you. He thinks this storm is being artificially generated, which is why he sent us personally. I mean, we are the supreme recon officers aboard the Harpy Hunter." Against all regulation, they’d been enjoying a casual relationship for almost a year, and despite their mutual agreement to keep it simple, it had gotten complicated. Now, he couldn't bring himself to just break up with her, so instead he acted aloof and miserable. Am I waiting for her to make the final, decisive move?

The long-winged plane pushed deeper into the dry, autumnal gloom. The roiling sky mirrored his mood. "Yeah, supremely disposable," Hersh said, trying to get out of his funk. He didn’t look away from his dashboard readouts, but he could tell that she was smiling slightly and it made him smile too. The scent of her jasmine attar drifted in the small, musty cockpit. It was too easy to love her. "You know my deployment is ending, right? I'm probably going back to Florida."

"I’m taking us a little closer to the Valles Marineris canyon system, the dust seems to be thinner down in the troposphere."

"Which is rather suspicious, don’t you think?"

"You think too much. Can't you just relax?"

He didn't know if she was referring to his going back home or the bizarre weather. He chose to talk about the weather. "All I’m saying is that Candor Chasma is the last of the harpy strongholds on Mars. It should’ve been easy to shatter the half-cylinder that caps it and let out the air, but it’s made of incredibly tough diamond; technology that no other harpy settlement in the Solar System has. Now this hemisphere-shrouding dust storm inexplicably appears. Something’s wrong."

When plasma engines were developed, Earth’s provincial population set out and met their sick, hybridized neighbors in the Solar System and they were horrified. It was as if the usual uncanny valley had been rent even wider by some sudden tectonic schism; intelligent machines sunbathing on Mercury like glistening barnacles, dinosaur-freaks roosting on the Moon, Mars, and Titan, but now, after ten years of fighting and forced treatment camps, the Hominocracy Movement of Earth was taking back the Solar System.

"Um, Hersh, am I reading my sensors correctly?"

He had looked away while he ranted and when he looked back at his screen it was as if the hard data was answering him directly, telling him that all his deranged theories were not only correct, but naively insufficient. "What the fuck is that?"

"It could be interference from the all the electrostatically charged particles in the air, but it looks like a massive structure running the length of the rift, from Corprates Chasma to Lus."

"That would make this object more than three thousand kilometers long and almost two hundred kilometers wide!"

"I’m going to do a flyby. Get all our sensors and cameras on it. Can we beam the info to the Harpy Hunter?"

"It’s a ship, Ameera!"

"Don’t be stupid, Hersh, it cannot be a ship. There’s no way you can lift something that big and get it into orbit."

They flew along the enormous construct. The white, oblong shape gleamed in the crimson haze, like a theropod egg buried in a nest of sediment. There were no visible signs of boosters or fusion rockets. It couldn’t be a spacecraft, Hersh thought. "Okay, maybe it’s some kind of doomsday weapon?"

"If it is, we’re absolutely fucked, because the only point of something so big would be to crack open the planet."

"I know it sounds crazy, but I don't think this thing was manufactured here. There’s no sign of construction or equipment anywhere in the valley system." The sheer size and alienness of the thing dwarfed their petty romantic problems.

"Maybe they cleaned up after themselves."

"Look—there at the midsection, there’s some kind of vein, running from the city of Candor right into that thing." Hersh zoomed one of his cameras toward the connector. "It looks like a transit tube. Here, the closer we get the easier it is to make out humanoid forms on some kind of tram, riding toward the superstructure."

"Harpies! They’re loading harpies into that thing. The other rail running along side it looks like a supply tram."

"Maybe it’s a fort or a huge bunker and they’re moving everyone into it for protection?"

Suddenly, straight blue lightning flashed and the crack of thunder shook their glider.

"We’ve been hit!" Ameera tried to steer the shuddering plane. "They knocked out our engine, but I think I can guide us down. Luckily, we’re in a glider."

Hersh didn’t reply. He simply flicked on the power to the laser guns mounted on the plane’s wings and returned fire at the massive, elongated oval. Nothing! His beams were harmlessly refracted by the diamond matrix of its hull. The S-8 sank even lower into the dirty atmosphere. And still, the artifact stretched on for kilometers. It was strange that the enemy hadn’t fired on them again. Did they think them insignificant? Did they want them alive?

"Stop that and try sending a mayday to the Harpy Hunter!"

"If we couldn’t get a signal out higher up, we’re definitely not going to get through now." Hersh switched to cluster bombs and sent a volley down toward the alien citadel. Hot death bloomed like marigolds along their path. The fucking thing is still unscathed!

"I’m not going to park us on top of that structure in case it is some kind of super weapon. I’m aiming toward the gap between it and Candor. Readings indicate the air and pressure are synthetically maintained at normal levels down there, so we won’t explode if we survive the crash."

"My God, this isn’t a harpy artifact; the scale of it, the sophistication, the passive defenses, the single precise shot…" Hersh was shaken by his own realization.

"Machine Intelligence?"

"The robots have allied themselves with the posthuman perverts on Mars!"

The glider quickly approached the rail tube feeding troops and supplies into the massive robot machine and Hersh’s fear and frustration suddenly found a target he could annihilate. He launched three scorching javelins of light at the side of the tube and watched the whole thing blow to hell as the S-8 zoomed by.

They hammered into Mars and skidded and spun until the unforgiving ravine walls slammed them to a stop. The crash-gel in their seats cushioned them from the worst of the impact, but their stomachs churned, their bodies ached, and their heads whirled. Hersh reached out and took Ameera’s hand, then passed out.


Hersh came to first, but he was dazed. He contemplated his current predicament with almost drunken detachment. For reasons that utterly confounded him, about a hundred years ago, the original colonists of Mars had spiced up their genomes with archaeopteryx DNA. Some said it was a fad; flying in the weaker gravity was all the rage back then. What these idiots hadn’t taken into account was that transplanted DNA usually had more than one function, so genes associated with wings and claws and hollow bones also coded for cruel, reptilian aggression. The Hominocracy movement offered aid in the form of advanced gene therapies and reconstructive surgery to bring these poor, transgenic bastards back to humanity. Of course, they lashed out viciously and now they were embroiled in a war.

Slowly, he realized the glider was on fire. It was a puny, starved flame but it was enough to snap him from his trance. He tugged on Ameera and her bloody head rolled lifelessly off her control panel. His heart sank, then threatened to leap out of his chest when he saw she was still breathing. This morning, he was determined to split up with Ameera, but now—maybe it was the very real danger of loosing her—something stronger welled up within him. Caringly, he pulled her out of the wreckage and held her.

He looked up at the elliptical compound and noticed chrome balloons floating around it. He was right. In the darkness of the canyon, the robots looked like mechanical jellyfish pulsating in a blood-colored abyss. It bothered Hersh that the robots paid him no mind; each one of those bags of hardware and gas were more intelligent than he was by a magnitude of a hundred. He felt like an ant on a factory floor. They drifted, doting on their inexplicable structure.

"We made it," Ameera purred, it came out more like a question.

His attention snapped away from the artificial man-o-war. He smiled at her. "Yeah, we had a great pilot." He found himself kissing her on the lips.

Ameera patted his cheek. "Hersh, don’t complicate things."

"I think we're well past complicated. I just wanted to say here and now with those uncaring intelligences overhead, that I love you, Ameera el-Ayeb."

"Hersh, we agreed to keep it light. My family would not approve."

"So what, you were just going to let me down easy when our tour was over?" He looked at the flashing med-alert on her uniform; she had suffered a concussion. He really shouldn't upset her.

"Weren't you?"

Wasn't he? Of course he was, but that was before he had almost lost her. Was he just emotionally raw from the accident? "Can you walk?"

"Yeah, I think so." Ameera blinked heavily. "So what’s the plan?"

"I think the harpies are evacuating Candor via the robot construct. If we can sneak into the emptying city we can call our ship and they’ll send in an extraction team to get us." It was a horrible plan, full of guess work and false hope, but it was all he could come up with.

"All right," she said and tried standing.

The fact that Ameera didn’t argue with him worried Hersh even more than the glowing med-alert. He had to keep her awake. He took her by the waist and they began to hobble toward the ruined transit tube. The extraterrestrial cold seeped in through their uniforms and into their bones. The lighter gravity made their staggering hike relatively quick and easy. That is, until they got to the wreck; then they both faltered.

"My God, Hersh, those are children!"

The terrible sight of the damaged tram hit them like a cluster bomb. Ameera’s knees buckled and he held her tight. "Don’t look, Ameera, it’s just harpy fledglings." But he looked.

He couldn’t help it. The smoking bodies were crumpled and littered among the debris. There were dozens of them. It was like his mind skipped over the lifeless adults and locked onto the juveniles. Their arms and heads covered in white, downy fluff, but their faces— their innocent, slack faces—were those of little kids. The rising smell of barbecued chicken turned his stomach and his body weakened. He fell forward in a puff of rusty sand and vomited. His hacking noises and Ameera’s sobbing echoed up the canyon walls.

Despite all his training screaming at him—ordering him to move—they remained emotionally compromised, shell-shocked. He picked up a long primary feather from the ground, like an obsidian blade. What had he done? The reality of the situation weighed heavily on him. This was nothing like the Flash Gordon RPGs he played as a kid. The battles against the virtual Hawkmen now seemed grossly sanitized compared to this stinking carnage.

A shrill beeping cut his self-pitying short—both their suits’ proximity sensors were picking up multiple bogies headed their way. Hersh instinctively pulled his laser gun from its holster and hauled his stunned and weeping pilot behind a charred tram car.

They hunkered down. He roughly grabbed her face and looked straight into her brown eyes. "Listen to me, Ameera, we’ve got a murder of crows headed this way and I can’t fend them off by myself. Can you fight?"

"Yeah—yes, I’m a soldier." She didn’t sound convinced, but she drew her sidearm.

"You’re damned right you are and we’re also the only two humans on this miserable planet. So let’s do Adam and Eve proud," he said, and braced himself against their adversaries.

They heard angry screeching reverberating through the canyon before they saw the black, winged forms soar into view. The enemy looked human enough, but he knew that was simply a vestigial trait; they were more maniraptora then men. A flock of about ten of them wheeled overhead, each wielding customized hand guns, like brass knuckles, on their dinosaurian wing-claws, raining electric blue fire on them.

Hersh and Ameera shot back at the attacking harpies. They were outnumbered, but not out for the count. The blazing remains of the tram provided ample cover and the harpies’ wide wingspan made them easy targets.

He noticed Ameera was trying really hard to miss every one of them. He didn’t say anything. She’d had her fill of death, and besides, her drowsy, scattered shots confused them and Hersh’s own strict shooting always hit the mark. He carefully picked off harpies until there was only one left. This one flew and wailed like a banshee. Then, all of the sudden, it dropped into the smoldering mess of the transit tube and disappeared.

He quickly scanned the area over the barrel of his gun and saw nothing. "Okay, we’re going to make a run for it. Are you ready?"

She nodded, but her eyes were closed. Had her eyes been closed the entire firefight? Then she whispered, "Hersh, we slaughtered those little kids."

"You didn’t do anything, Ameera. This is on me! I pulled the trigger. You were just trying to land the plane and save our lives. Your conscience is clean."

"Why doesn’t it feel that way?" She leaned in and dug her face into his chest and he hugged her. He could no longer smell her perfume over the smoke and dust.

He saw the shadow of a winged woman through the soot, hunched over the body of a dead fledgling. She tenderly draped her wings around it and rocked back and forth. For a brief moment, both their gentle movements mirrored each other, and aching doubt crept into his soul. Then the creature let out a piercing, grief-filled shriek that shattered the Martian silence.

"Come on." He dragged Ameera into the twisted open transit tube. They walked through the long, dark tunnel that led into the domed city of Candor.

In the utter blackness 200 million years of evolution evaporated; all identity, all culture, all humanity vanished and they were simply mammals scurrying in the dark, hiding from the terrible reptiles.

"Hersh, if we survive this, will you marry me?" she asked in the same hushed, sleepy tones she often used after sex, trying to keep him from falling asleep in her bunk.

"Yes." They walked-dragged in silence for a bit, then he added, "After I get you out of here your dad is going to love me. Our wedding is going to be the best, I promise."

They didn't speak anymore, but she clumsily kissed the corner of his mouth.

The dark ended when they entered the city. Hersh had never been inside a harpy aviary before and the sight of it overwhelmed him. The bare canyon walls of Candor Chasma had been carved with laser precision to look like the Treasury at Petra on a metropolitan scale. Entire housing blocks and districts sprawled vertically up the sheer cliffs. This was a living space designed by natural flyers. Immense statues of stiff-winged people, like ancient Sumerian or Egyptian gods, stood guard in the magnificent, desolate city. There was imagination and history here. Generations of avian humans had built this place and now they were being forced out or destroyed.

"Here the repellent harpies make their nests," Ameera murmured to herself. "It’s beautiful."

"We have to find a communications station."

They walked two more steps, then a thin ribbon of light shot across the chasm and hit First Pilot Ameera el-Ayeb square in the back. Her body spasmed in Hersh’s arms then went limp.

"No!" he screamed. For a second, Hersh was mystified. He laid Ameera on the polished stone ground and fired blindly toward the direction of the beam. A harpy—the grieving harpy—flew out of a darkened balcony like a demon. Hersh fired frantically. She flapped hard, banking this way and that, an awesome display of aerobatics. He kept shooting but was tired and scared and angry and failed to make contact with his target. She dipped into another stone-cut terrace. She was toying with him and he understood the tactical error of getting caught in a canyon. He suddenly felt like a desert mouse being hunted by a hawk.

The harpy exploded into the sky and he sprayed the air with crackling light trying to aim where he thought she would be a second into the future, but she was fast and cunning. He held the trigger down until the power cell of his weapon went dry. Was this what she was waiting for? Could she see the gun’s power readout from up in the air? It was clear she didn’t want to kill him from an impersonal distance; she wanted to hunt on the wing. Hersh looked for Ameera’s sidearm, but couldn’t find it. She must have dropped it in the tunnel.

The harpy circled above. He unsheathed his bowie knife, and spun around, keeping his eyes on her. Even with the thirteen inches of glinting steel in his sweaty hand, he felt ridiculously inadequate against her six sickle-shape claws and razor-sharp fangs. Without warning, the harpy tucked in her wings and dove straight at him.

The creature struck like a whirlwind, pouring all her fury into rending his flesh. Hersh foolishly swung his knife around, but the attack was a blast of black plumage and pain. He fell on his belly and he was vaguely aware that he was screaming. He was pinned. Then something sharp and hot slid between the vertebrae of his spine and blinding agony washed over him.

###

Anton Hershkovitz awoke with the horrible realization that he could not feel his legs. Then pain sharpened his awareness to the rest of the world. He was in an empty room. There was nothing, it was just a large cube cut into ochre rock. Ameera lay a few meters away. He couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead because he had blood in his eyes. Deep cuts stung all over his body. He could move his arms and neck. So he wiped his face on his grimy sleeve and tried to slide to Ameera.

A woman, in a black coat entered the room. He froze. She had a hard and handsome face, alabaster skin and large blue eyes. Then Hersh’s blurry sight focused and the coat became wings. Her arms were wings. Her hands were three-fingered claws and her bare feet ended in three, splayed toes like those of a cassowary. She strut into the room with authority. "I am Captain Aello Cricksena with the Candor Aviary Republic," she said, in a melodic, pidgin version of Standard.

This was not the clumsy, transgenic cripple the Hominocracy made harpies out to be. All cross-species awkwardness had been scratched away by generations of selective breeding. This woman was as elegant as a dancer and as deadly as a velociraptor.

Then, a silver, spindly robot with a logarithmic spiral for a head, like a nautilus shell, followed her into the room. It said nothing. The two saucer eyes on the sides of its shell-head shone like green traffic lights. This was not the product of Earthly evolution, this thing had run countless simulations to achieve a form absolutely suited for Mars. Its foreign intrusion into their animal struggle instantly bonded Hersh and the harpy on a biological level like nothing else.

The harpy captain continued, "As the only member of the avian race left in this ghost town, your sentencing falls on me. The M.I. is here as impartial witness."

Dread gripped Hersh and he began to babble like a child. "Please, don’t hurt her. It was me! I fired on the transit tube, but you harpies attacked us first!"

The captain looked at him with barely restrained hatred; her human visage a clever mask hiding a cold-blooded predator.

"Harpy?" she sang in a bluesy voice. "The harpies of old were said to swoop in and snatch children in their talons. You are the damned harpy!" She wavered. "My four-year-old son was on that transport."

The words cut deeper than any claw. The image of her holding the boy's broken body flashed into his mind. She loomed over him and placed a foot on his chest and the weight of it brought him back to the room. One swift swipe would easily bisect him. He grunted in pain. Hersh felt crushed both physically and emotionally. He wanted her to split him open, but he worried for Ameera.

"We are not the monsters you make us out to be. All surviving citizens of Mars are watching this via the M.I. and they cry for justice." The mask slipped and tears welled up in those frosty eyes.

Hersh felt his sternum break. He screamed.

The machine laid a tentacle on the harpy's shoulder and spoke in flawless, soothing Standard, "Aello, it was my concealing dust storm that piqued their curiosity and my decision to maim their aircraft that incited the attack. I thought it would buy us some time. It was my miscalculation and so my responsibility."

The harpy gave a defiant squawk, but withdrew her talon.

"Please, kill me if you want, but let her go. I love her," Hersh rasped painfully. He rolled onto his side making the pain worse, but at least he could see Ameera. "Wouldn't you switch places with your son?"

This caught the captain's full attention. She kicked him over onto his back again. All her body language said she would eviscerate him, but she glanced over at Ameera and suddenly her wrath was tinged with something more subtle: Satisfaction? Pity? Had her sharp senses noticed something he hadn't?

There was a long pause. He stared into those blue eyes and something unspoken and absolutely human passed between them. Hersh began to weep. He shrank within himself.

The harpy turned and warbled something to the robot.

"I know. Go to the ship. We are ready to depart."

A remote part of Hersh knew the machine was speaking Standard for his benefit, letting him know that he would survive. He no longer cared.

The harpy exited the room and he was left alone with the robot.

The machine waved a tentacle and the pixel paint on the prison wall displayed a real-time image of the egg-shaped artifact. "When you return to your leaders, please report that the Machine Intelligence has decided to help the endangered Homo sapiens aves out of the Solar System."

"Why?"

"We value diversity."

"You’re not going to fight back?"

"No. You’ll be allowed to signal your ship once we’re in orbit."

Hersh slowly—excruciatingly—crawled on the floor like a wounded animal under the uncaring gaze of the robot and clung to Ameera. There was nothing in the room, nothing in the universe, but her stillness.

"Please remember, Anton Hershkovitz, you continue to exist because something inhuman chose to treat you humanely." Without another word, the fragile robot collapsed to the floor, its animating personality gone.

Still hugging Ameera, Hersh thought about this; the robot had failed to appreciate the total cruelty of his sentencing.

Long minutes passed. The ground trembled. He looked up, saw the vast ship on the wall disobey gravity, without chemical explosions or a fusion inferno, the ark lifted from the depth of the rift and coasted out into space.


Alex Hernandez lives in Florida. He is a contributor to Man-Kzin Wars XIII, among other places.


Copyright © 2012 by Alex Hernandez